For an essay in progress, I’m reading A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.
She writes about myth, as in the ancient stories told to explain the human experience and its meaning, and not myth, as it is commonly used today as a synonym for “lie”. It’s striking me that literary essays and myths have a great deal in common.
- Myths [essays] place life in a larger setting, revealing underlying patterns and meaning. They often “spring from profound anxiety about essentially practical problems, which cannot be assuaged by purely logical arguments.” They deal with complicated emotions.
- Myths [essays] express the innate sense that there is more to human beings and the natural world than meets the eye.
- Myths [essays] are concerned with what an event meant. “Helping us get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”
- The most powerful myths [essays] are about extremity. They are about the unknown. They look “into the heart of a great silence.”
- Myths [essays] are not told for their own sake. They show us how we should live. They are only effective if they provide a new insight, and force us to change our minds and thoughts.
My comparison isn’t as neat as it seems, though. For instance, Armstrong writes that a myth is meaningless without its attending ritual, often, it seems, involving sacrifice and ordeals. Unless this refers to the struggle of the essayist herself, I think this is something of chasm between myth and essay.
As well, there’s the niggling problem of “fact” in literary essay. A myth, in Armstrong’s sense is a story that exists somewhere outside the common definition of “truth”. It’s a story that’s both accurate and not really factual. Which is for some a totally reasonable definition of an essay or a memoir, for others, a total anathema. (This is major theme in a forthcoming book I’m really excited to read, The Lifespan of a Fact.)
As for me, although I recognize the various shortcomings of fact as a concept, I’m generally a fact fan, since I come from journalism, and also because I think facts are an interesting and important artistic constraint. But I understand the other perspective. And if an essay and a myth can fulfill the same function for society, I wonder what that means for the importance of “fact” in essay.